My sister, Emily, is putting on a 5k in Shelbyville this August and over the past week or so, I’ve been training for it.
That’s right. The eden who said she would never run—specifically, the eden who said that even if something awful was chasing her, she would rather be eaten alive than pick up the pace—is going to run (and probably keel over dead during) the Runaway Bride/Runaway Groom 5k.
“What on earth could drive someone as adamant as eden to go against principles she’s held for most of her life?” you might ask. “Charity? Personal betterment? An attempt at a healthier lifestyle? The desire to measure oneself? The need to achieve something?”
None of the above. I just don’t want to do any of the jobs Emily might find for me to do if I’m not running. And I imagine there are a lot of them—timer, register, water-hander-outer, the guy who writes down what everybody’s number is, etc., etc., etc.
“So, you would rather run 1-3.1 miles a day for the next two months than do a small menial job for half an hour? Say, holding a stopwatch or handing out t-shirts?”
Yes. In fact, I have a long history of doing more work to get out of doing less work.
Ask my high school biology teacher. Instead of gathering, pressing, and labeling the native leaves of Missouri over the allotted 3-month period, I found them all the night before they were due, pressed them between cookie sheets and baked them in my mom’s oven. Then I pretended to be sick that next morning so I had time to glue, label, and binder my leaf project, before suddenly feeling better, calling around, finding a way to school to turn it in that afternoon.
Better yet, ask any teacher who required my class to keep a journal and then turn it in at the end of a semester. You think it’d be easy for a writer to write half a page a week about anything he or she wanted. The thing is, though, you can find about ten different pens and pencils around your house and fabricate entries the night before they’re due. (Helpful Tip: To make it especially engaging for your reader, refer to a “previous” entry in a “later” one. Maybe you realized something about yourself as a person or learned to see things from a different point of view.) My favorite trick is to start an entry with a pen that’s almost dead, run out of ink, try scribbling at the top to get that darn pen to work, then get a different pen to finish. It gives your journal an earnest, true-to-life appearance that your reader can relate to.
I once made, printed, and “wore-in” a funeral program for my little brother, falsified airline e-ticket documents, and forged an excuse from my dad just so I didn’t have to do makeup work for skipping one too many (terminally boring) composition classes in college.
I just don’t want to do the up-front work required to make life easier. I can’t even imagine living in a world where I put my nose to the grindstone, make a sincere effort, and rise through the ranks until I hold some respectable position in a reliable 9-5 job.
This is probably a huge reason I’m a writer. Say I write a book over the course of a year (Halo took me eight months, but let’s round up). Then I spend a year revising it, getting feedback, overhauling, and re-revising. Then another year doing the various and sundry things it takes to publish a book. Three years.
If I had a consistent job that paid $7 an hour, with two weeks’ vacation (and not counting all the days I would undoubtedly call in sick because I’m a terrible employee) I’d have made $42,000 in three years’. Also, I’d have 3024 hours of free time (not counting the assumed 8 hours a night for sleep).
The payoff for those same three years as a writer is anywhere from $80 on the low end (this is assuming every one of your family and friends buys your self-published book and not counting the expenses of self-publishing) to $20,000 on the high end (assuming you sign with a major publisher who thinks you’re aces and wants to promote your debut book out the wazoo (Which, by the way, they never want.)). The best-case scenario figures out to a whopping $1.14 an hour. And in case you’re wondering, there’s no such thing as “free time” for writers, only “wasted time.” If you’re not making words into sentences, you might as well be hitting yourself in the head with a hammer.
But I’d still rather write because, in my mind, it seems like a keen way out of doing a real job. (And other reasons that even fewer would laugh at.)
What was my point? I guess that I realize I would rather take the hardest possible way out than do a small amount of work because any way out at all makes me feel like I beat the system.
Or, “Understanding Gender Denial”
Guess what, readers? I am a girl. Female. Woman.
I’m okay with admitting that. Or, really, I’m becoming better at admitting that. Growing up, I wasn’t able to. I didn’t want people to think of me as a girl. I wanted to be tough, strong—“totally b.a.” is a phrase I use nowadays that I didn’t know back then, but it’s definitely what I wanted people to think when they thought of me. I wasn’t gay and I never felt like a boy trapped in a girl’s body. I just didn’t want people to see me as a girl.
Why? Because I didn’t want anyone to think that they could hurt me. I had been a girl before. I’d worn skirts and headbands and got my hair cut in all the cute ways that little girls do. And I’d been hurt.
So I dressed in boy’s clothes. I wore button-down shirts and combat boots and—when I could get away with it—pants to church. No makeup or jewelry, ever. Skirts when the religious guilt and yelling got to be too much, but only huge tent-like messes that looked awful and dragged the ground. I was the first female in the history of my school to buy a men’s letter jacket, the kind with the gold sleeves. I tried to speak and sing in a lower voice.
Nothing girly was allowed in my interests. I could only like the things I thought boys liked—wrestling, hunting, BMX. I read comic books, horror, and epic fantasy. In band, I played the drums because that’s what boys played. And I didn’t just want to pack second or third snare in marching band like some dumb girl trying to be cool. No, I wanted the quads and I wanted to be the drum line captain.
To be fair, some of the “boy” interests were genuine on my part. Drumming, for example—I love the drums. I love horror and epic fantasy and comic books. But I was a die-hard Cowboys fan who had never watched a full game.
There are a lot of things I could say about a girl trying to be a boy in a rural area, but I wasn’t trying to make a statement or change anything—all I really wanted was to be safe. Gender barriers are fragile things, though. The year after I ordered a gold-sleeved men’s letter jacket, another girl did, too. The year after her, four girls did. It’s such an insignificant thing, but I like knowing that those girls got what they wanted instead of what they were expected to.
With the good, though, you take the bad.
While we were still in elementary school, I told my best friend, a boy, that he couldn’t make me cry. I spent the rest of the week taking punches, kicks, getting scratched, and having my face smashed into playground equipment by the boys in my class. I made it. I didn’t cry. But there’s still a scar where my best friend dug a freshly sharpened pencil into my thumb until the lead broke off.
For the first six years after I started puberty, I denied having my period. If we were out of tampons or pads at the house, I had to buy my own from the school bathroom. I couldn’t tell anyone when I was having cramps so debilitating that I almost passed out. I couldn’t take medicine to ease the pain.
I couldn’t do things the way that girls did. No flirting. No being catty. No long stories that could be summed up in a few words. No depending on anyone other than myself. If I had a problem with someone I either had to fight them, outsmart them, or show them up. I couldn’t have the emotions that girls had. No crying. No fear. No feeling hurt.
No one at my school ever asked me outright if I was a lesbian. I know people wondered, though. I don’t blame them. I had all the other clichéd markers of a bull dyke—including weight lifting. But I loved guys. I loved the way they looked and the way they smelled. The way they talked and joked and how their bodies moved when they walked or played sports. I knew they would feel great to touch. Kissing one would be incredible.
But I couldn’t like boys—not where someone could see me.
Then I met Josh. For two years, I admired him in excruciating silence. He was all I thought about, the only thing I’d ever wanted so badly. What was weirder, I wanted him to want me. It was as if a safecracker had started working on the locked-away girl part of my brain.
Josh and I limited our interactions to a ridiculous and incoherent set of rules. He smiled at me; I put on a pair of broken glasses and said I’d been hit by a bus. He gave me paper towels from the boys’ bathroom; I wrote a stupid song and sang it in front of hundreds of people to impress him. We spent half a class scraping a rock-hard wad of gum off the bottom of a desk; I popped it in my mouth and tried to chew; Josh laughed and got in trouble. Each new, crazy exchange was another tumbler turning.
One night I couldn’t hide it anymore. Driving home from Upward Bound, I told my best friend that, “I…think…maybe…I like Josh.” She told me everybody already knew. And since everybody already knew—and no one had changed the way they acted around me—maybe I could do something about it without jeopardizing the image I thought I’d built for myself.
I asked Josh out my senior year. We dated according to those first rules of engagement—muddy cemeteries, chemical lakes, and hanging out with each other’s grandpas. I sent Josh encoded letters without a key; he bought a family Bible. After a few months, we held hands, then he asked me to marry him.
Sorry, guys. I didn’t realize this post was going to turn into a love story. I guess that’s a good metaphor for my life.
There are still times when I find myself avoiding something because of that stubborn, scared part of me that doesn’t want to be seen as a girl. I can’t force it. Locks take time to pick. I have hope that it won’t always be such a struggle to admit that I am, in fact, female.
It’s been about six months since I went to a visitation for one of my high school classmates. I’ve had lots of time to think over the experience, to try to understand it, and I think I’m starting to get a tenuous grasp on what happened and why it was so important to me.
I never felt like I belonged in high school. I wasn’t funny, pretty, or good at any sport. I was painfully awkward, the wrong kind of smart, and I looked and sounded kind of like a guy. High school for me was this ongoing fight to keep everyone else from realizing that I knew I had come to the wrong party.
So when I graduated, I didn’t look back. I did the college-on-the-coast thing and barely ever talked to anyone I used to know, even my best friends. I built my life—got married, bought a house, had two-point-five kids. I was far enough removed from everything high school that when Nick died, I heard about it from my sister, who spent more time around people from my class than I did. I didn’t cry. I couldn’t really even comprehend losing someone from the part of my life I cut off.
Driving to Shelbina for the visitation, I was nervous. I called my sister to see what she was wearing. I went back home and changed, then wondered whether I should go back and change again. When I finally got to the funeral home, I parked as far away as possible. I felt like I shouldn’t be there, that I didn’t deserve to be sad about Nick’s death. I had this irrational fear that my classmates would take one look at me and think, “What a poser. She hasn’t even talked to Nick since we graduated. Like she even cares.”
I tried to hide in plain sight the way I always had in high school. Be quiet, act natural. Pretend like you don’t know that you shouldn’t be here.
Then a strange thing happened while I was in the viewing line. Nick’s mom hugged me. She remembered my name. She knew I had two little boys. She said I had grown up into a beautiful woman. That shattered me. In the middle of all her loss and pain, she let me know I wasn’t unwanted.
An even stranger thing happened when I got to the crowd of my classmates beside the casket. They talked to me. It was as if we’d just seen each other a few days ago. We cried together, but then we laughed. Because this was Nick. He was the great equalizer of our class. There were weird kids and cool kids, jocks and band nerds—all of the usual high school designations—but Nick got along with pretty much everyone. While he was alive, he made us all laugh, sometimes until we cried or shot milk out of our nose. After he died, he made us laugh while we cried. As Cody put it, “I cried when I first found out, but all the way here, I kept remembering the good times we had and I couldn’t stop laughing.”
We stood up by the casket and remembered Nick-escapades. I thought about the freezing cold night at a football game when he pointed to where his marching band hat should’ve been and said, “Hat. Ha, ha. Get it? Because there’s not one.” Of Nick putting his plume in Vinnie’s sousaphone. The day he kept making up new sayings like, “We’re so good, if we were ice cream, no one would be able to stop eating us” and “We’re so tight, if we were clothes, no one could wear us.” The time in Fiber Optic Spanish when our teacher swore there weren’t any redheads with brown eyes and Nick got up in front of the camera and had us zoom in until she could see his eyes. The continuous stream of “dam” jokes he made as we crossed the dam on the way to Branson for our senior trip.
As we reminisced, I realized why this experience was so Nick. High school was unbearable, and probably everyone in my class felt at one time or another as if they shouldn’t be there, but Nick could make us laugh so hard that we forgot about our crushing inadequacies for long enough to feel like they didn’t matter.
On the way home, I turned the radio on and a song by REO Speedwagon was playing. Nick was the one who told me who the band was and what an REO speedwagon was. I turned it up and rolled down my windows and sang along and thanked Nick for everything he’d been to me and to my classmates. It hurts to say goodbye, but, well, you know.